• Reds in the Head – The War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells (1898)
• Canine the Barbarian – The Call of the Wild, White Fang, and Other Stories, Jack London (Penguin American Library 1981)
• Star-Stuff – The Universe in 100 Key Discoveries, Giles Sparrow (Quercus 2012)
• An Island of Her Own – The Phantom Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies and Blunders on Maps, Edward Brooke-Hitching (Simon & Schuster 2016)
Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR
You don’t read some books: you live them. Treasure Island (1883) is like that; so is The War of the Worlds. Both books appeared before true cinema, but they have the vividness of films and more besides, because cinema can’t evoke scent, smell, taste and sensation as language can. Words create worlds in your head and the best writers, like Wells and Stevenson, can make the real world grow dim while you read. I first read both books as a child and both have stayed with me, so that every time I re-read them I can remember how it felt to read them that first time.
Or rather: I can remember how it felt to live them. I had heard the rustling feathers of Long John Silver’s parrot in Treasure Island; I had tasted the bitterness of the red Martian weed that smothers large parts of London in War of the Worlds. Both books are written in the first person and they’re both full of twists and surprises. That first person – the constant “I, Me, Mine”, as George Harrison put – helps explain why they’re so vivid, but it took much more than that. Stevenson and Wells were literary geniuses, masters of creating worlds from pure imagination.
After all, Stevenson had never lived in the eighteenth century and gone sailing on a treasure-hunt. Wells had never experienced an invasion by Martians. But you will if you read War of the Worlds. Wells captures the way it might have been with great skill and subtlety, from the mysterious lights and flashes seen by astronomers on Mars to the landing of the first cylinder containing Martians. Every time I re-read I know exactly what’s coming, but the narrator never does and I experience the story through him, so that it never fails to seem fresh and exciting.
Or horrifying. The Martians are like red octopuses, but they seem harmless and even pitiful at first, struggling to cope with the stronger gravity of Earth. Then suddenly they turn into death-dealing monsters, with a military technology far in advance of Victorian England’s and the will to use it without mercy. Or does “mercy” apply to creatures from another world? That’s one of the questions faced by the narrator when he sees the Martians at work, whether they’re slaughtering humans with their heat-rays and poison gas or capturing humans for food. The Martians aren’t men and our standards don’t apply. We matter to us, but why should we matter to them?
Because I’m living through the narrator, the ending of the story still seems surprising. Man was helpless, but Mother Nature wasn’t, as the narrator suddenly learns. Wells is good at shifts of perspective that make you see human beings and the world in a new way. Arthur C. Clarke learned that from him, but Wells was a greater and more grown-up writer. Today we know that Mars isn’t likely to invade, but The War of the Worlds remains an excellent adventure story and a continued warning about the “infinite complacency” with which men go “to and fro over this globe with their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter” (“The Coming of the Martians”).
Posted in Literature, Science fiction | Tagged Arthur C. Clarke, English literature, H.G. Wells, language, London, Martians, nineteenth-century literature, novel, red Martian weed, science fiction, SF, space-travel, Victorian England, Victorian literature, War of the Worlds | Leave a Comment »
The Call of the Wild (1903) and White Fang (1906) were two of the most powerful books I ever read as a child. I had strong memories of the suffering of the sled-dogs and the cruelty and callousness of the men in the former, of the ruthlessness and viciousness of the dogs in the latter. And I had strong memories of the savage cold and snow of Canada in both.
Re-reading them as an adult, I’ve discovered that Jack London is like J.R.R. Tolkien: his literary talent didn’t match his literary ambition. Mark Twain said that Wagner’s music is better than it sounds. You could say that London’s and Tolkien’s books are better than they read. Their ideas are interesting, their themes massive, but their prose lets them down. Otherwise they might have been among the greatest writers, rather than just among the greatest story-tellers.
The Call of the Wild and White Fang are certainly good stories. They’re complementary, the first telling the story of a tame dog that has to learn to be savage, the other the story of a savage dog that has to learn to be tame. In the first, Buck is a powerful, thick-pelted family pet living “in a big house in the sun-kissed Santa Clara valley”. He doesn’t know that his power and his pelt have suddenly become very valuable:
Buck did not read the newspapers, or he would have known that trouble was brewing, not alone for himself, but for every tide-water dog, strong of muscle and with warm, long hair, from Puget Sound to San Diego. Because men, groping in the Arctic darkness, had found a yellow metal, and because steamship and transportation companies were booming the find, thousands of men were rushing into the Northland. These men wanted dogs, and the dogs they wanted were heavy dogs, with strong muscles by which to toil, and furry coats to protect them from the frost. (The Call of the Wild)
And so Buck is dog-napped, treated cruelly for the first time in his life, and transported to the far north, where he learns “The Law of Club and Fang” as he works pulling a sled. White Fang, the hero of the second book, knows the Law of the Fang from the beginning, because he’s born in the wild, part dog, but mostly wolf:
The aim of life was meat. Life itself was meat. Life lived on life. There were the eaters and the eaten. The law was: EAT OR BE EATEN. (ch. V, “The Law Of Meat”)
Later, when he’s captured by Indians, he learns the Law of the Club. He also learns about cruelty, sadism and hate. Finally, he learns about love, when he acquires a good master and is tamed by kindness.
But he always knew about another kind of love: the kind explored in the short story “Love of Life” (1906), which is also included here. It’s about an injured gold-miner abandoned in the Canadian wilderness who drives himself through “frightful days of snow and rain” to the coast in search of rescue. He nearly starves, he’s nearly killed by a wolf, and his feet become “shapeless lumps of raw meat”, but he’s sustained by “Love of Life”.
The dog Bâtard, in the story of the same name (1904), is sustained by hate and his desire for revenge over his cruel master. Dogs aren’t really dogs in Jack London’s stories: they’re furry humans on four legs, vehicles for London’s Nietzschean ideas about combat, cunning and will. Richard Adams is much more successful at putting himself into the lives of animals, or keeping himself out, but I’m pretty sure that London’s stories were an inspiration for Watership Down (1972).
I’m even surer that they were an inspiration for Conan the Barbarian. I was reminded of Conan a lot as I read and Robert E. Howard was fascinated by the same things: violence, fighting, cruelty, the struggle for survival, and the relation between civilization and savagery. White Fang might have howled in agreement at this, from the Conan story “Beyond the Black River” (1935):
The woodsman sighed and stared at his calloused hand, worn from contact with ax-haft and sword-hilt. Conan reached his long arm for the wine-jug. The forester stared at him, comparing him with the men about them, the men who had died along the lost river, comparing him with those other wild men over that river. Conan did not seem aware of his gaze.
“Barbarism is the natural state of mankind,” the borderer said, still staring somberly at the Cimmerian. “Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.”
Howard was a better writer than London, but I’m not sure that he was as complex and interesting a thinker. He certainly didn’t live as interesting a life. Part of the power of London’s writing comes from the knowledge that he had experienced what he wrote about: life-and-death struggles between man and the elements, between man and man, between man and beast. He was influenced by Nietzsche and may have influenced fascism in his turn. He certainly had racial and social ideas that horrify many people today.
Those ideas aren’t prominent in The Call of the Wild and White Fang, which helps explain why these are now by far his most famous books. That they are animal stories helps even more: they appeal to children and children don’t notice the clumsiness of his prose. But he was a prolific writer, despite dying in 1916 at only the age of forty, and I want to try more of his work.
Posted in Adventure, Children's Literature, Literature | Tagged "Bâtard", "Love of Life", American literature, barbarism, Canada, Canadian wilderness, civilization and savagery, cold and snow, Conan the Barbarian, cruelty, dog-napping, dogs, EAT OR BE EATEN, fighting, gold-mining, J.R.R Tolkien, Jack London, Nietzsche, Nietzschean, Penguin American Library, Penguin Books, Robert E. Howard, short stories, sled-dogs, struggle for survival, The Call of the Wild, The Law of Club and Fang, trapping, twentieth-century literature, violence, Watership Down, White Fang, wolf, wolves | Leave a Comment »
Possibly the best book I’ve ever read on astronomy: text and images complement each other perfectly. Even the solidness of the book was right. It’s a heavy book about heavy ideas, from the beginning of the universe to its possible endings, with everything astronomical in between.
And everything is astronomical, if it’s looked at right. The elements vital for life were cooked in stars before being blasted out by supernovae. We are star-stuff that has the unique privilege – so far as we know – of being able to understand stars.
Or trying to. This book was first published in 2012, so it’s inevitably out of date, but many of the mysteries it describes are still there. And when mysteries are solved, they sometimes create new ones. Even the behaviour and composition of a celestial body as close as the Moon is still impossible for us to explain. But sometimes it’s easier at a distance: the interior of the earth can harder to study than galaxies millions of light years away, as I pointed out in “Heart of the Mother”.
In every case, however, understanding depends on mathematics. Astronomers have been building models of the heavens with shapes and numbers for millennia, but the models had to wait for two things to really become powerful: first, the invention of the telescope; second, the development of modern chemistry and physics. Whether or not there is life out there, celestial light is full of messages about the composition and movement of the stars and other bodies that generate it.
But visible light is only a small part of the electromagnetic spectrum and modern astronomy probes the universe at wavelengths far above and below it. The more data astronomers can gather, the more they can test the mathematical models they’ve built of the heavens. The best models make the most detailed predictions, inviting their own destruction by ugly facts. But when predictions fail, it sometimes means that the observations are faulty, not the models. Cosmological models predicted much more matter in the universe than we can see. Is the gap accounted for by so-called “dark matter”, which “simply doesn’t interact with light or other electromagnetic radiations at all”? (ch. 98, “Dark Matter”, pg. 396)
Dark matter is a strange concept; so is dark energy. Astronomy may get stranger still, but the cover of this book is a reminder that human beings inhabit two kinds of universe. One is the universe out there: matter and radiation, moons, planets, stars, galaxies, supernovae. The other is the universe in here, behind the eyes, between the ears and above the tongue. The cover of this book offers a vivid contrast between the swirling complexity and colour of a star-field and the sans-serif font of the title and author’s name. But the contrast is ironic too. The stars look complex and the font looks simple, but language is actually far more complex and difficult to understand than stars.
Consciousness may be far more complex still. In the end, is the value of science that it expands consciousness, offering new physical and mental sensations of discovery and understanding? The powerful and beautiful images and ideas in this book could only have been generated by science, because the universe is more inventive than we are. But without consciousness, the universe might as well not exist. Without language, we’d never be able to try and understand it. Then again, the universe seems to have invented language and consciousness too.
Posted in Astronomy, Chemistry, Physics, Science | Tagged astronomy, celestial bodies, chemistry, dark energy, dark matter, electromagnetic spectrum, galaxies, Giles Sparrow, mathematics, matter, physics, planets, Quercus, radiation, stars, supernovae, the telescope, The Universe in 100 Key Discoveries | Leave a Comment »
• Bits of the Best – The Shorter Strachey, Lytton Strachey, ed. Michael Holroyd and Paul Levy (Oxford University Press 1980)
• Shaman On U! – Copendium: An Expedition into the Rock’n’Roll Underworld, Julian Cope (Faber and Faber 2012)
• Scorpions and Sea-Lords – Philip’s Guide to Seashells, A.P.H. Oliver, illustrated by James Nicholls (various)
• Spike-U-Like – The Cactus Handbook, Erik Haustein, translated by Pamela Marwood (Cathay Books 1988)
• Glasguitargang – Dog Eat Dog: A Story of Survival, Struggle and Triumph by the Man Who Put AC/DC on the World Stage, Michael Browning (Allen & Unwin 2014)
Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR
I’d prefer to have met Strachey’s work first in this book rather than in Eminent Victorians (1918). Then the best would have been still to come. As it was, I first read Eminent Victorians, then sought out more of his work and was disappointed. Victoria (1921) is dull, Elizabeth and Essex (1928) duller.
The Shorter Strachey is much better than those two. Indeed, one short essay on Lodowick Muggleton is worthy to stand beside the long essay on Cardinal Manning that opens Eminent Victorians. This is very good writing:
Never did the human mind attain such a magnificent height of self-assertiveness as in England about the year 1650. Then it was that the disintegration of religious authority which had begun with Luther reached its culminating point. The Bible, containing the absolute truth as to the nature and the workings of the Universe, lay open to all; it was only necessary to interpret its assertions; and to do so all that was wanted was the decision of the individual conscience. In those days the individual conscience decided with extraordinary facility. Prophets and prophetesses ranged in crowds through the streets of London, proclaiming, with complete certainty, the explanation of everything. The explanations were extremely varied: so much the better — one could pick and choose. One could become a Behmenist, a Bidellian, a Coppinist, a Salmonist, a Dipper, a Traskite, a Tryonist, a Philadelphian, a Christadelphian, or a Seventh Day Baptist, just as one pleased. Samuel Butler might fleer and flout at
petulant, capricious sects,
The maggots of corrupted texts;
but he, too, was deciding according to the light of his individual conscience. By what rule could men determine whether a text was corrupted, or what it meant? The rule of the Catholic Church was gone, and henceforward Eternal Truth might with perfect reason be expected to speak through the mouth of any fish-wife in Billingsgate. (“Muggleton”, in Portraits in Miniature, 1931)
Elsewhere, Strachey writes well but not exceptionally on subjects as varied as Voltaire and Frederick the Great, the acting of Sarah Bernhardt, the humour of Dostoevsky, and his own life. He’s witty, perceptive, and, in the autobiographical pieces at least, unblushingly candid. His day-description “Monday June 26th 1916”, in which he longs for a flyweight boxer in the Daily Mirror and tries to realize a daydream of seducing “that young postman with the fair hair and lovely country complexion who had smiled at me and said ‘Good evening, sir’, as he passed on his bicycle”, couldn’t have been published in his lifetime.
Which didn’t last long. It began in 1880 and ended in 1932. There were big changes in those five decades and Strachey was at the heart of some of them. Eminent Victorians was an important book, part of the revolt against the old order provoked by the slaughter and futility of the First World War, but it wouldn’t have been so successful if it hadn’t been so well-written.
You’ll see here that Strachey was rebelling against part of himself: there’s Victorian stodginess in some of the essays and reviews, even if they were written after Eminent Victorians. But “Muggleton” is as light as a soufflé. It’s also affectionate rather than acid. It would have been a foretaste of literary bliss, if I’d read this book first.
I’d didn’t, but you should if you don’t know Strachey. If you do, you’ll learn a lot more about him here. There are also glimpses of others in the Bloomsbury Set, like Ottoline Morrell and Dora Carrington. And The Shorter Strachey closes with four essays on French literature and culture, which were both very important to Strachey. The French writer Jean Giradoux supplies his epitaph: « Seuls les médiocres sont toujours à leur meilleur. » – “Only the mediocre are always at their best.” Strachey wasn’t mediocre and wasn’t always at his best. But he got there in “Muggleton” and got close elsewhere in this book.
Posted in Autobiographies, Biographies, Essays, Literature | Tagged Christianity, Dora Carrington, Dostoevsky, Elizabeth and Essex, Eminent Victorians, flyweight boxer, Lady Ottoline Morrell, Lodowick Muggleton, Lytton Strachey, Michael Holroyd, Ottoline Morrell, Oxford University Press, Paul Levy, Sarah Bernhardt, The Shorter Strachey, Victoria, Voltaire and Frederick the Great | Leave a Comment »
Philip’s Guide to Seashells (sic), A.P.H. Oliver, illustrated by James Nicholls (various dates)
Number is all, as the Pythagoreans recognized more than two millennia ago, but number is more obvious in some places than others. When you leaf through this book, you’re leafing through a catalogue of mathematical possibility: the endlessly varying shapes, sculptings, colours and patterns of seashells are in fact governed by evolutionary changes in a few relatively simple variables. The black-spotted, drill-like spiral of Terebra sublata might look very different from the orange-tinged, flattened, scorpion-like Lambis crocata, with its seven curved spikes, but the two species descend from the same ancestor as every other shell on display.
From the same ancestor as shell-less land- and sea-slugs too. But readers should remember that this book is a morgue as well as a museum: rich and beautiful as the shells are, the living animals and their biology are richer and more beautiful still. The living animals are sometimes deadly too: the very beautiful cone-shells have killed humans with their stings.
But the shell remains when the animal is dead, and can be collected and studied in isolation. That’s why almost all of the book is devoted to the more or less snail-like univalves, with the more or less scallop-like bivalves given only a few pages at the end. Generally speaking, univalve shells are much stronger and much more durable. They’re also more varied in both architecture and patterning: anyone who’s played with cascading cellular automata will often find the designs on the shells of cowries and cone-shells startlingly familiar. But they were doing it millions of years before us.
The cowries have a sexual charge too, with their tight, pudendal slits: their generic name, Cypraea, is taken from a title of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. The apertures of other genera gape and glisten even more suggestively, imitating the labia of every human race and many abhuman ones. Is that part of the appeal of shell-collecting? I don’t know, but it doesn’t have to be, because it doesn’t appear in every shell and can’t be seen when the shells in which it does appear are turned over.
And they look better like that: Cypraea caputdraconis (sic), or the dragon’s-head cowrie, looks like unzipped black jeans lying on its back, but like a black, silver-flecked jewel lying on its front. It’s found only on Easter Island too, which is one of the many interesting snippets you can pick up from the short descriptions accompanying each highly skilled illustration.
But the illustrations aren’t, alas, as highly skilled as they could have been: in the reflections on many of them you can see the wooden dividers in the window of the room in which they were painted. That might have been quirkily attractive once or twice, but repeated over and over it becomes irritating. It could have been avoided, or the artist could have set up other reflections: palms, sea-birds, clouds, and even the moon or stars, as though the shells were still lying on a tropical beach.
Fortunately, it affects only the shiny and relatively undistorting surfaces of genera like the cowries and it’s only a minor blemish in a beautifully designed and well-written guide to a fascinating subject. And as always, the scientific names can have an appeal all of their own: we’ve already seen Cypraea caputdraconis, but what about Conus thalassiarchus, the Sea-Lord Cone, or Cirsotrema zelebori, whose meaning I have no idea of?
Posted in Collecting, Conchology, Hobbies, Marine Biology, Science | Tagged A.P.H. Oliver, biology, bivalves, cascading cellular automata, Cirsotrema zelebori, Conchology, cone-shells, Conus thalassiarchus, cowries, Cypraea, Cypraea caputdraconis, dragon's-head cowrie, Easter Island, evolution of seashells, James Nicholls, labia, Lambis crocata, Marine Biology, mathematics and biology, natural history illustration, Philip's Guide to Seashells, seashells, sexual symbolism, Terebra sublata, the Sea-Lord Cone, univalves, vulval symbolism | Leave a Comment »